Thursday, April 08, 2010

`O Tufted Entomologist!'

Ellen Emerson reported that her father, when she was a girl, often recited a scrap of his own doggerel:

“In Walden wood the chickadee
Runs round the pine and maple tree
Intent on insect slaughter:
O tufted entomologist!
Devour as many as you list,
Then drink in Walden water.”

I fancy the chickadee is Thoreau and the poem is a playful, faintly mocking tribute to his friend, rival and tenant, though I have no textual or biographical evidence to substantiate the whim. Ellen was born in 1839 so the chronology works. Emerson was not without humor, often of a rather sniffy sort. After all, at Thoreau’s funeral he said of the author of the two-million-word journal that ranks among the Rosetta stones of American literature:

“I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition.”

But “tufted entomologist!” is awfully good and I imagine Thoreau would have claimed the sobriquet with pride. Among birds, he seemed particularly fond of chickadees, sometimes projecting onto them aspects of his personality. He refers to them in his journal as “the little top-heavy, black-crowned, volatile fellows” (Oct. 17, 1856) and writes on Oct. 15, 1859:

“The chickadees sing as if at home. They are not travelling singers hired by any Barnum. Theirs is an honest, homely, heartfelt melody. Shall not the voice of man express as much content as the note of a bird?”

Given the seasonal structure of Walden and the great paean to spring in the penultimate chapter, this journal entry from March 21, 1858, reads like cloaked autobiography:

“Standing by the mud-hole in the swamp, I hear the pleasant phebe [variant of “phoebe”] note of the chickadee. It is, methinks, the most of a wilderness note of any yet. It is peculiarly interesting that this, which is one of our winter birds also, should have a note with which to welcome the spring.”


Laura said...

This just made my day. Thank you!

alarob said...

I read this smiling, thinking of a Cherokee storytelling tradition that the chickadee is a habitual liar, but the tufted titmouse can be trusted. (See James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokees, 1888.) They’d insist that chickadees are the most Barnum-like of birds. Also, the birds may be entomologists, but they’re not tufted; if anything, they look like they’ve slicked down their crown feathers with greasy kid stuff. So I wonder which black-crowned Parida Emerson was really celebrating.